Reviews

In 'Hellbender', Is He Speeding Away from Trouble? Or Toward It?

The back cover kind of says it all: Jason Jack Miller's Hellbender is "Johnny Cash with a fistful of copperheads singing the devil right back to hell".


Hellbender

Publisher: Raw Dog Screaming Press
Length: 232 pages
Author: Jason Jack Miller
Price: $14.95
Format: Paperback
Publication date: 2012-09
Amazon

Hellbender lives up to its billing and that’s no easy feat, considering how the last paragraph on the back cover reads: "Jason Jack Miller’s Murder Ballads and Whiskey series is a unique blend of dark fiction, urban fantasy and horror. It’s Appalachian Gothic, Alt.Magical.Realism, Hillbilly Horror. It’s American Gods meets Justified. True Blood with witches. It’s Johnny Cash with a fistful of copperheads singing the devil right back to hell."

It all begins with a mysterious death and a feud.

The feud is pretty easy to define: Collins versus Lewis. Main character and narrator Henry Collins gives some background: “Growing up, I thought every family had an enemy who stole shit from their property, who burned barns down and raised the kind of hell that kept your parents up at night worrying." The Lewises were, in short, “the only bogeymen I ever feared”.

The death is a little more complicated. Jane, Henry’s sister, is dead. But was it an accident or something more sinister? Henry doesn’t seem interested in finding out and walks away from his family and his home, wanting to escape the feud (and the magics) he doesn’t completely understand (or believe in). But, as Henry notes when he looks in his rearview mirror, “The mirror, as honest as it was, would never tell me if we were speeding away from trouble, or toward it.” In this case, trouble was all around.

Henry finds a somewhat unlikely alliance in Alex, a former (and now current) love interest who was also Jane’s roommate and is a Lewis relation. Together, they race through rural West Virginia in a quest for justice (or revenge). Along the way, a near-death rafting experience, several chase scenes, multiple beatings and shootings, a panicked creep through an abandoned coal mine, an allegedly stolen heirloom, and lots (and lots) of snakes and magic keep things energetic and interesting.

Miller doesn’t shy away from death and violence—Hillbilly or no—the book is definitely horror, but not stilted Hollywood horror. It’s well-written, character-driven horror. The setting is often beautifully described. The characters are complicated and capable of the unexpected. There’s even gender equality—both men and women kick a little butt—men usually with guns (or tree limbs, rocks, ax handles, etc.) and women primarily with magic.

But the magic isn’t hokey; it’s magical realism that is strangely more believable because Henry doesn’t always believe. When his family suggests that one of the Lewises may have stolen Alex’s hairbrush, he mocks “hair magic”, and he also thinks the victim of a drowning spell is suffering from food poisoning. Granted, sometimes the chase scenes could be just as smidgeon shorter, but all in all, this is simply a good book. And it gets bonus points because I can’t remember the last time I read something like it. Let’s face it--in the 21st century, originality isn’t always easy to find.

Another point worthy of note—how the book (and the series) came to be in the first place. The Devil and Preston Black, the first book in the series, was a self-published (or as Miller calls it, independently published) e-book. Hellbender was also first published as an independent e-book, then, because of its success, was picked up by Raw Dog Screaming Press.

I checked out Miller’s website and was pleased I could read 100 pages of The Devil and Preston Black there. Check it out, but if you are a writer, also spend some time looking at “eBooks and the Independent Spirit” and reading Miller’s five rules for independent publishing. Here’s an excerpt:

"ePublishing can't be pursued as a last resort. I believed that before I could take the plunge, I had to make ePublishing my FIRST choice. I knew if I wasn't going to treat my book the way a publisher-- who'd spend all kinds of money to print, market and distribute the book--was going to treat it, then independent publishing probably wasn't going to work for me. I had to believe to the depths of my soul that I knew what was best for my book. I was not doing it favors by letting it sit on a shelf, unread."

Miller further notes, “I worried about what other writers—specifically my peers from Seton Hill—would say about my choice to jump ship. I had a huge list of Big Six-published books in my arsenal, books from people like Snooki, Nicole Richie, Lauren Conrad, that I could whip out whenever Big Six publication as a path to true legitimacy was mentioned.”

To put Miller’s thoughts to the test, I mentioned to a literary friend or two that I was reading a good book, then read them the summary on the book jacket. Many were putting it on their “to read” list. Then I told them that originally the book was self published. I can see why Miller needed an arsenal.

Perhaps I’m making too much of this, but Hellbender may not be just another good book. I wonder if this book (and its author) represents a changing tide, a new trend in the way books, good books, move from writer to reader. Certainly Miller isn’t the first writer to move from independent publishing to the more traditional. If fact, he’s probably not even the first good writer to make the switch (or the first good writer to publish independently). But his attitudes toward the publishing process and his willingness to state, rather loudly, that “No matter how you are published, or who publishes you, you ARE an independent writer” seem to make him just as original as the book itself.

8

From genre-busting electronic music to new highs in the ever-evolving R&B scene, from hip-hop and Americana to rock and pop, 2017's music scenes bestowed an embarrassment of riches upon us.


60. White Hills - Stop Mute Defeat (Thrill Jockey)

White Hills epic '80s callback Stop Mute Defeat is a determined march against encroaching imperial darkness; their eyes boring into the shadows for danger but they're aware that blinding lights can kill and distort truth. From "Overlord's" dark stomp casting nets for totalitarian warnings to "Attack Mode", which roars in with the tribal certainty that we can survive the madness if we keep our wits, the record is a true and timely win for Dave W. and Ego Sensation. Martin Bisi and the poster band's mysterious but relevant cool make a great team and deliver one of their least psych yet most mind destroying records to date. Much like the first time you heard Joy Division or early Pigface, for example, you'll experience being startled at first before becoming addicted to the band's unique microcosm of dystopia that is simultaneously corrupting and seducing your ears. - Morgan Y. Evans

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Music

The Best Dance Tracks of 2017

Photo: Murielle Victorine Scherre (Courtesy of Big Beat Press)

From the "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique to Stockholm Noir's brilliant string of darkly foreboding, electro-licked singles, here are ten selections that represent some of the more intriguing dance offerings of 2017.

In June of 2016, prolific producer Diplo lambasted the world of DJ's in an interview with Billboard, stating that EDM was dying. Coincidentally enough, the article's contents went viral and made their way into Vice Media's electronic music and culture channel Thump, which closed its doors after four years this summer amid company-wide layoffs. Months earlier, electronic music giant SFX Entertainment filed bankruptcy and reemerged as Lifestyle, Inc., shunning the term "EDM".

So here we are at the end of 2017, and the internet is still a flurry with articles declaring that Electronic Dance Music is rotting from the inside out and DJ culture is dying on the vine, devoured by corporate greed. That might all well be the case, but electronic music isn't disappearing into the night without a fight as witnessed by the endless parade of emerging artists on the scene, the rise of North America's first Electro Parade in Montréal, and the inaugural Electronic Music Awards in Los Angeles this past September.

For every insipid, automaton disc jockey-producer, there are innovative minds like Anna Lunoe, Four Tet, and the Black Madonna, whose eclectic, infectious sets display impeccable taste, a wealth of knowledge, and boundless creativity. Over the past few years, many underground artists have been thrust into the mainstream spotlight and lost the je ne sais quoi that made them unique. Regardless, there will always be new musicians, producers, singers, and visionaries to replace them, those who bring something novel to the table or tip a hat to their predecessors in a way that steps beyond homage and exhilarates as it did decades before.

As electronic music continues to evolve and its endless sub-genres continue to expand, so do fickle tastes, and preferences become more and more subjective with a seemingly endless list of artists to sift through. With so much music to digest, its no wonder that many artists remain under the radar. This list hopes to remedy that injustice and celebrate tracks both indie and mainstream. From the "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique to Stockholm Noir's brilliant string of darkly foreboding, electro-licked singles, here are ten selections that represent some of the more intriguing dance offerings of 2017.

10. Moullinex - “Work It Out (feat. Fritz Helder)”

Taken from Portuguese producer, DJ, and multi-instrumentalist Luis Clara Gomes' third album Hypersex, "Work It Out" like all of its surrounding companions is a self-proclaimed, "collective love letter to club culture, and a celebration of love, inclusion and difference." Dance music has always seemingly been a safe haven for "misfits" standing on the edge of the mainstream, and while EDM manufactured sheen might have taken the piss out of the scene, Hypersex still revels in that defiant, yet warm and inviting attitude.

Like a cheeky homage to Rick James and the late, great High Priest of Pop, Prince, this delectably filthy, sexually charged track with its nasty, funk-drenched bass line, couldn't have found a more flawless messenger than former Azari & III member Fritz Helder. As the radiant, gender-fluid artist sings, "you better work your shit out", this album highlight becomes an anthem for all those who refuse to bow down to BS. Without any accompanying visuals, the track is electro-funk perfection, but the video, with its ruby-red, penile glitter canon, kicks the whole thing up a notch.

9. Touch Sensitive - “Veronica”

The neon-streaked days of roller rinks and turtlenecks, leg warmers and popped polo collars have come and gone, but you wouldn't think so listening to Michael "Touch Sensitive" Di Francesco's dazzling debut Visions. The Sydney-based DJ/producer's long-awaited LP and its lead single "Lay Down", which shot to the top of the Hype Machine charts, are as retro-gazing as they are distinctly modern, with nods to everything from nu disco to slo-mo house.

Featuring a sample lifted from 90s DJ and producer Paul Johnson's "So Much (So Much Mix)," the New Jack-kissed "Veronica" owns the dance floor. While the conversational interplay between the sexed-up couple is anything but profound, there is no denying its charms, however laughably awkward. While not everything on Visions is as instantly arresting, it is a testament to Di Francesco's talents that everything old sounds so damn fresh again.

8. Gourmet - “Delicious”

Neither Gourmet's defiantly eccentric, nine-track debut Cashmere, nor its subsequent singles, "There You Go" or "Yellow" gave any indication that the South African purveyor of "spaghetti pop" would drop one of the year's sassiest club tracks, but there you have it. The Cape Town-based artist, part of oil-slick, independent label 1991's diminutive roster, flagrantly disregards expectation on his latest outing, channeling the Scissor Sisters at their most gloriously bitchy best, Ratchet-era Shamir, and the shimmering dance-pop of UK singer-producer Joe Flory, aka Amateur Best.

With an amusingly detached delivery that rivals Ben Stein's droning roll call in Ferris Bueller's Day Off , he sings "I just want to dance, and fuck, and fly, and try, and fail, and try again…hold up," against a squelchy bass line and stabbing synths. When the percussive noise of what sounds like a triangle dinner bell appears within the mix, one can't help but think that Gourmet is simply winking at his audience, as if to say, "dinner is served."

7. Pouvoir Magique - “Chalawan”

Like a psychoactive ayahuasca brew, the intoxicating "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique's LP Disparition, is an exhilarating trip into unfamiliar territory. Formed in November of 2011, "Magic Power" is the musical project of Clément Vincent and Bertrand Cerruti, who over the years, have cleverly merged several millennia of songs from around the world with 21st-century beats and widescreen electro textures. Lest ye be worried, this is anything but Deep Forest.

In the spring of 2013, Pouvoir Magique co-founded the "Mawimbi" collective, a project designed to unite African musical heritage with contemporary soundscapes, and released two EPs. Within days of launching their label Musiques de Sphères, the duo's studio was burglarized and a hard drive with six years of painstakingly curated material had vanished. After tracking down demos they shared with friends before their final stages of completion, Clément and Bertrand reconstructed an album of 12 tracks.

Unfinished though they might be, each song is a marvelous thing to behold. Their stunning 2016 single "Eclipse," with its cinematic video, might have been one of the most immediate songs on the record, but it's the pulsing "Chalawan," with its guttural howls, fluttering flute-like passages, and driving, hypnotic beats that truly mesmerizes.

6. Purple Disco Machine - “Body Funk” & “Devil In Me” (TIE)

Whenever a bevy of guest artists appears on a debut record, it's often best to approach the project with caution. 85% of the time, the collaborative partners either overshadow the proceedings or detract from the vision of the musician whose name is emblazoned across the top of the LP. There are, however, pleasant exceptions to the rule and Tino Piontek's Soulmatic is one of the year's most delightfully cohesive offerings. The Dresden-born Deep Funk innovator, aka Purple Disco Machine, has risen to international status since 2009, releasing one spectacular track and remix after another. It should go without saying that this long-awaited collection, featuring everyone from Kool Keith to Faithless and Boris D'lugosch, is ripe with memorable highlights.

The saucy, soaring "Mistress" shines a spotlight on the stellar pipes of "UK soul hurricane" Hannah Williams. While it might be a crowning moment within the set, its the strutting discofied "Body Funk", and the album's first single, "Devil In Me", that linger long after the record has stopped spinning. The former track with its camptastic fusion of '80s Sylvester gone 1940s military march, and the latter anthem, a soulful stunner that samples the 1968 Stax hit "Private Number", and features the vocal talents of Duane Harden and Joe Killington, feels like an unearthed classic. Without a doubt, the German DJ's debut is one of the best dance records of the year.

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